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2005 in review: 5 questions to Dean Pizzo on the anti-science backlash

L.A. Cicero

The Dalai Lama, Dean Philip Pizzo, Howard Wheeler of UCSF and William Mobley before last month’s medical school-sponsored panel.

Over the past year, Dean Philip Pizzo, MD, has repeatedly warned of a growing anti-science movement that jeopardizes the potential for improving the health and well-being of the world. Medical Center Report asked him to discuss the reasons he chose to speak out in 2005.

1. Why are you so concerned about a faith-based backlash against science?

Pizzo: We are clearly at a crossroads. While we are investing considerable public as well as private funds in science and medicine, a number of political, faith-based and ideological forces are altering public perception and trust.

My concern is not simply about the anti-science movement in the United States per se or even more globally, but more so about the attempts to impose an ideological point of view on society writ large. It begins to raise troubling questions about whether our democratic process is at risk of becoming a theocracy.

2. Is there really cause to be so worried?

Pizzo: There have been a number of disturbing developments:

  • The intrusion of the Congress into the peer-review process to unfund or discredit research grants approved by the NIH jeopardizes one of our most successful scientific enterprises.
  • The appointment of individuals to scientific advisory boards or bioethics commissions because of their religious point of view confuses the boundaries between science and religion.
  • The blockage of promising areas of science such as stem cell research because of the moral or religious concerns of a minority of citizens can prevent discoveries of benefit to our health.
  • And the proliferation of false information about condom use and safety in preventing sexually transmitted diseases because of ideological positions on abstinence and abortion can lead to heightened morbidity in developing nations.
  • These are just some examples of how ideological points of view expressed by groups "in power" can negatively impact on health.

    3. And what about the legal battle over the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools?

    Pizzo: Of course the resurfacing of the issues that surrounded the Scopes trial of 1920 in the recent intelligent design debate of 2005 is very concerning. I do not object to a belief in intelligent design when it is expressed as a matter of faith. But intelligent design is not science and in fact is refuted by an enormous body of experimental data.

    4. Isn't it inevitable that faith and science collide?

    Pizzo: The process of scientific discovery and its attempt to explain the world we live in and the origins of life has resulted in an extraordinary depth of knowledge—some of which can appear to confront the very foundations of religion and faith. As the world has become more secular it's not surprising that there has been a counter-reaction by religion to find a greater grounding in faith. And when the scientific community becomes disengaged from the public sentiment, the gulf between science and faith can widen.

    Accordingly, I think it is important for our medical and scientific community to be more forthcoming in its dialogue with those who have a different perspective that may be more faith-based—understanding that there are simply aspects of faith and science that will not converge into a singular view. It is facile to think that science and faith are mutually exclusive. They are different and there is every reason to have respect and value for each—without pitting one against the other.

    5. When has there ever been productive dialogue between science and religion?

    Pizzo: Well, the School of Medicine joined with the Office for Religious Life in November to co-host a visit to Stanford of the Dalai Lama.

    From my perspective, what defined the Stanford event, and differentiated it from some of the more acrimonious debates and divisions occurring across our nation, was the acknowledgement that science and faith are separate and discrete and that each deserves respect and value.

    There is no question that most humans treasure faith and that it takes on various forms of expression and belief. It can offer solace in a world often lacking comfort and security, especially at the boundaries of the human experience. However, at its core, faith is unlikely to ever be defined empirically. And while faith can offer a context for human experience it is also unlikely to elucidate the principles of cosmology, physics or biology.